Despite the cacophony against ‘them’

By the Rev. Jerrod H. Hugenot

Each Sunday morning, when American Baptist congregations around upstate New York join voices in the Lord’s Prayer, the Day of Pentecost echoes with the various languages lifted up: English, Spanish, Karen, Chin, Burmese, Chinese, French and many more. Indeed, the Lord is given due praise!

Such an experience happening in New York State is not surprising. Many U.S. families trace their “American” story back to an ancestor’s arrival in New York City decades or centuries ago at Ellis Island and other points around the state. In telling the stories of New York State, historians often marvel at the great diversity still shaping our state’s development and identity. Our region, American Baptist Churches (ABC) of New York State, is blessed to include churches long rooted in the soil of New York, the product of forebears speaking a variety of languages — mostly European in origin — that established a Baptist presence in the state and was later built upon by waves of immigrants from multiple nations.

In recent years, the region’s newest churches arise out of the burgeoning Karen, Chin and Kachin communities, both newly arrived persons and others long settled across upstate New York. One of the strongest areas of Karen resettlement is around Utica, N.Y., “a town that loves refugees” and sees welcoming refugees as both a humanitarian practice and tool for economic development (PBS News Hour’s “Making Sense”).

Indeed, our regional gatherings reflect our state and our denominational racial/ethnic inclusivity with worship in many languages and traditions. Our future is linked to continuing our history of welcoming and embracing newcomers so that we can continue weaving our story as multi-lingual and multi-hued American Baptists.

In the days immediately following the 2016 election — after a long political season in which politicians traded regularly on nationalism and singling out who is “other” in “our” midst — the escalation of hate speech, physical violence and school-yard bullying was evident nationwide. As I write in mid-November 2016, crude graffiti and symbols of hate are visible in public places, including on church buildings of congregations that hold “welcome” as a significant part of their ministry.

As we look toward the future, will we see possibility or retrogression? We already know that federal and state laws, public policy and the justice system — tools with the potential to create common good — are at risk of being shaped into hammers of intolerance and oppression. What is gained when a cacophony of rhetoric sharpens sentiment into violence? What happens when suspicion informs harsh policy?

I take hope, however, in the possibilities found in our American Baptist DNA. When I read our history, I find a tradition of Baptists willing to come alongside persons whose religious and civil liberties are being abridged and whose fundamental dignity and human rights are endangered. The history of American Baptist home mission is part of that great narrative, yet I know even greater stories and potential exist in our denomination’s 5,000-plus churches across the United States.

The most powerful part of our denomination is the local church. What can American Baptist congregations do locally that will engage public policy and address local and national incidents of intimidation or exclusion? What happens if we take up such a priority in our own neighborhoods and communities?

We will find great promise in living out xenophilia, or “the love of others,” and not much at all by subsisting on xenophobia, or “the fear of others.” Advocacy for and hospitality with persons singled out for political purposes are neither abstract principles nor practices we can leave to others. American Baptists, can we join with other faith traditions to be people who are known for our compassion? Can we raise our voices when others are being silenced, as we have done before?

Let us be resolved to the truth that all people are God’s children. Let us avoid talk that casts our fellow human beings as threats at our borders or that reduce unfamiliar faces in our neighborhoods to labels or simply “those people.”

The Rev. Jerrod H. Hugenot is associate executive minister of ABC of New York State, with previous pastoral experience in Kansas and Vermont.